All-American hazing

February 18, 1997|By Rowland Nethaway

BLACK ACTIVIST H. Rap Brown spoke a truth Americans didn't want to hear in 1967 when he said, ''Violence is as American as cherry pie.''

The blood pinning of paratrooper wings on young men who successfully completed training in an elite Marine Corps unit is proof that hazing is as American as apple pie.

It's not that Americans should be violent. Neither should we haze. We do it because it's in our nature.

We can deplore violence until the cows come home, but there's no denying that there's little that Americans love more. Violence sells. It's as big as sex.

Violent hazing is often not obvious because it is seldom caught on videotape and played back on national television, such as the 1991 and 1993 blood-pinnings at the Marine Corps parachute school at Camp Lejeune, N.C., that have prompted predictable nationwide tongue-clucking. This sort of hazing sometimes accompanies initiation rites into organizations the members consider elite.

Not one of the Marines who had their paratrooper wings slammed into their chests on the videotapes reported to sick bay for medical treatment or complained about their ordeal. Similarly, there were no reports of complaints or medical treatment during the years not shown on videotape.

It's unlikely that all those Marines who underwent the violent initiation rite for their elite unit were too wimpy to defend themselves. It's more likely that they viewed violent blood pinning as a final test before they were accepted into a select group.

Elite warrior groups throughout history have endured various blood initiation rituals. We can argue that these warriors were wrong, but we can't say that their violent rituals are unusual. Even in the modern military, it's still the duty of fighting forces to kill and destroy. It's a violent profession.

Not all hazing is violent. It can be ridiculous or humiliating. Hazing comes into play when people attempt to join or fit into an established group.

Children first experience hazing when they get tagged with humiliating nicknames, divide into all-important playground groups and then decide who is qualified to join and what they have to do to fit in.

College fraternities are notorious for their over-the-top hazing activities, which often include both physical and mental abuse.

Hazing is one way elite groups cull unfit applicants. Many elite RTC academic schools harass new students with difficult and unnecessary work to weed out unqualified pretenders. First-year law schools are infamous for piling on work while professors harass and humiliate students. Medical school is much the same. The all but unbearable work load and sleep deprivation forced on medical residents appear to meet the dictionary definition of hazing. The practice has defenders.

Hazing appears to be indefensible. But that may depend on how it is defined and who does the defining. Is it hazing when no one complains? Is only physical hazing wrong? To some, forcing new members to stand on a table and sing the group's song would constitute hazing.

Surely hazing, like violence, is wrong. But if that's true, there must be a reason why is it so prevalent in our culture, and why it is as American as apple pie.

Rowland Nethaway is senior editor of the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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